1988 Revisited

With the run-up to the NBA season and the final stretch of the presidential election, I fell off the podcast-reduction wagon, but now I’m back to my non-chronological year-by-year trip through pop music’s past.

1988, time to set it straight … This list features a really strong Big Three: The Greatest Rap Album Ever, the Greatest Post-Punk Guitar Album Ever and the greatest female singer-songwriter/folk-rock album ever (so sayeth me, absent acclamation).

After that, the year sounds more muddled to me. Some great afropop aftershocks from 1986’s Graceland/Indestructible Beat of Soweto breakthrough, a classic year for hip-hop singles yielding more good but few great albums, the full-fledged debut of alt-rock’s essential ’80s-to-’90s bridge band (Pixies), and lots of veteran prestige artists doing good work that’s not quite at their best (Prince, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, the Traveling Wilburys conglomerate, U2, R.E.M., Talking Heads, Richard Thompson, Robert Cray). There were also some Big Statements that haven’t aged that well (Tracy Chapman, Midnight Oil, maybe U2/R.E.M. apply here) and shocks of the new that aged even worse (Living Colour, Sugarcubes, Fishbone).

But I probably can’t intro my 1988 lists without talking about what might be the two most retroactively lauded albums of the year, neither of which factor prominently for me. N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton and Guns N Roses’ Appetite for Destruction are in many ways the same record.

Both are essentially hits-and-filler records and, as such, both are better represented on the singles list.

There’s more than a little self-conscious epater la bourgeoisie, one more strategically righteous than the other, the other a little more consistent and enduring as a total piece of music.  (Another historical hits-and-filler comp, but better: Never Mind the Bollocks … Here’s the Sex Pistols.) Both are (pock)marked by misogyny, with N.W.A.’s problems in this area both more transparent and also more (unintentionally) instructive: “I Ain’t Tha 1” is the best non-hit on either album, not just because it sounds incredible, but because Ice Cube’s resentful attack on a would-be romantic partnere instead turns on itself; it’s a portrait of male loserdom made all the more grand for its lack of self-recognition.

Both bands fell victim to artistic bloat and internal chaos that made follow-ups less worthwhile and their careers — as bands, at least — short-lived. These are definitely two of the most culturally momentous albums of 1988. But this isn’t a list of bands or cultural eruptions, it’s a list of records, and Straight Outta Compton and Appetite for Destruction are both “classic” albums for people who don’t really listen to albums, each with highpoints, each better as an idea of a record than as a listening object.



  1. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back – Public Enemy: Definitely one of the albums I’ve listened to most, and would be on the short list if I only concluded spins from 1988-1992. Despite how thoroughly I know every beat, hook, sample, exhortation, and aside, it still thrills. The perfect vocal contrast of bullhorn and court jester. Avant-garde and accessible, relentless and funny. Packed with detail (sound and sense) and sometimes a little full of shit. A Top Five all-time contender.
  2. Lucinda Williams – Lucinda Williams: Her 1998 follow-up-once-removed Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is more widely considered Williams’ masterpiece, and I used to feel that way, but I’ve come back around to this not-actually-a-debut. It’s a less perfect record, and maybe that’s partly why it cuts deeper. Car Wheels may peak at the very beginning, but every song is of a piece. Lucinda Williams is comparatively uneven. Half the songs are brilliant; the rest offer companionable support. The breathless, yearning opener — “I Just Wanted To See You So Bad” — rushes by in 21 lines, nine of them a repetition of the title refrain. “Changed the Locks” is a love-gone-wrong song that builds steadily toward the cosmic, managing to be horrified and funny all at once. “The Night’s Too Long,” a fictional story of a small-town girl moved to the city, and “Crescent City,” an autobiographical sibling song, are sketches so precise you can feel the cool moisture coming off the beer bottles in the bars where one song ends and another begins. And then there are “Passionate Kisses” and “Side of the Road” — twin titans about the imperatives and limits of romantic love that are at once visionary and also grounded in the everyday. Throughout, Williams’ breathy, marble-mouthed vocals — her signature, if anything is — are just a little more naked and open than they’d ever be again. The simpler secondary songs — the straight country “Price To Pay,” the alt-country Velvet Underground “Like a Rose,” the lonely lament “Am I Too Blue” — give the album some room to breathe, and they grow more lovely all the time. The closing Howlin’ Wolf cover? A turf grab. Not just a declaration of artistic support but one of artistic equality.
  3. Daydream Nation – Sonic Youth: I’ve tended to disagree with consensus (to the degree there is one) on Sonic Youth. Give me relaxed late career hookfest “Rather Ripped” over pre-Daydream insurgency or Nirvana-era alt-rock breakthroughs. But I agree with pretty much everyone that this was the peak of their powers.
  4. Paris-Soweto – Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens: Captured in a Paris studio during a European tour after the success of Graceland spurred a reunion, this is the classic mbaqanga sound (West Nkosi producing, the Makgona Tsohle Band playing) updated for state-of-the-art recording. The gritty quality of the earlier recordings is missing, but the beauty is all there: the shimmering, swirling guitars, the open-hearted vocals, the impossible brightness. (In fact, I often think that the second track, “Awuthule Kancane,” is among the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.) There’s even a healthy dose of English lyrics, and, sung in these voices, they don’t embarrass.
  5. Strictly Business – EPMD: Two barely distinguishable voices intertwined around a scratched-up post-disco groove that never lets up. Hip-hop reduced to the verities.
  6. Virgin Beauty – Ornette Coleman & Prime Time: Part of this list-making exercise is relistening to and reevaluating records I know well, but part of it is seeking out contenders I’ve missed along the way, and this is my best discovery so far. A dabbler in the realm of jazz, I mostly just know what I like. I like this. A lot.
  7. Surfer Rosa – Pixies: The bridge from Husker Du/Sonic Youth to Nirvana/Pavement is … um … paved with sugar-rush guitars and obscurantist screaming.
  8. The Heartbeat of Soweto — Various Artists: As ’80s mbaqanga comps go, this is a folkier, more wide-ranging alternative to The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, duplicating only Amiswazi Emvelo on the artist list. It’s more rural-sounding, with almost country-blues equivalents such as Mlokothwa’s “Thathezakho” and Armando Bila Chijumane’s “Kamakhalawana.” The result is a record with a more relaxed pace and possibly a calmer spirit — less of a joyous rush but perhaps just as rewarding.
  9. Follow the Leader – Eric B & Rakim: Similarly elemental as Strictly Business, but more personalized: Eric B’s beat and Rakim’s mind-to-mouth continuum engaged in private conversation as perpetual musical motion.
  10. Folkways: A Vision Shared – Various Artists: Woody’s rock-era inheritors Dylan, Springsteen and even Mellencamp all sound better here than they would elsewhere for a while and Sweet Honey in the Rock and Taj Mahal more than earn their keep. Not quite as fine as Mermaid Avenue or A Tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, which would come a decade later, but a fine stage-setter.
  11. Thunder Before Dawn — Various Artists
  12. Thokozile – Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens
  13. Black Album – Prince
  14. Land of Dreams – Randy Newman
  15. Straight Out the Jungle – Jungle Brothers
  16. I’m Your Man – Leonard Cohen
  17. By All Means Necessary – Boogie Down Productions
  18. Critical Beatdown – Ultramagnetic MCs
  19. 16 Lovers Lane – Go-Betweens
  20. The Tenement Year – Pere Ubu
  21. Jive Explosion — The Soul Brothers
  22. Heartbeat Soukous — Various Artists
  23. Volume One – The Traveling Wilburys
  24. Appetite for Destruction – Guns n Roses
  25. Old 8X10 – Randy Travis
  26. Isn’t Anything – My Bloody Valentine
  27. Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman


  1. “It Takes Two” – Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock
  2. “Sweet Child O Mine” – Guns n Roses
  3. “Paid in Full (Seven Minutes of Madness Mix)” – Eric B & Rakim
  4. “Don’t Believe the Hype” – Public Enemy
  5. “It’s My Beat” – Sweet Tee & Jazzy Joyce
  6. “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’” – Big Daddy Kane
  7. “Fast Car” – Tracy Chapman
  8. “Potholes in My Lawn” – De La Soul
  9. “Microphone Fiend” – Eric B and Rakim
  10. “Fuck Tha Police” – NWA
  11. “Runaway Train” – Rosanne Cash
  12. “Bass” – King Tee
  13. “Teenage Riot” – Sonic Youth
  14. “Go On Girl” — Roxanne Shante
  15. “Strictly Business” – EPMD
  16. “Da Butt” — EU
  17. “Shake Your Thang” – Salt-n-Pepa
  18. “(Nothing But) Flowers” – Talking Heads
  19. “You Gots to Chill” – EPMD
  20. “Straight Outta Compton” – NWA
  21. “Talkin’ All That Jazz” – Stetsasonic
  22. “Because I Got It Like That” – Jungle Brothers
  23. “Handle With Care” – Traveling Wilburys
  24. “Birthday” – The Sugarcubes
  25. “Follow the Leader” – Eric B. & Rakim
  26. “Joy and Pain” – Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock
  27. “Welcome to the Jungle” — Guns and Roses
  28. “Anchorage” – Michelle Shocked
  29. “Beds Are Burning” – Midnight Oil
  30. “Plug Tunin” – De La Soul
  31. “My Philosophy” – Boogie Down Productions
  32. “DJ Innovator” – Chubb Rock
  33. “Paper Thin” – MC Lyte
  34. “Colors” – Ice T
  35. “Alphabet Street” – Prince
  36. “Hazy Shade of Winter” – The Bangles
  37. “My Prerogative” – Bobby Brown
  38. “Going Back to Cali” – LL Cool J
  39. “Whoever’s in New England” – Reba McEntire
  40. “Parents Just Don’t Understand” – DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince

3 thoughts on “1988 Revisited

  1. First off, the variety of your musical interest and knowledge is truly impressive.

    I wonder if the absence of a movie list reflects your views on the year/decade? I think the 1980s is the most barren decade for great film since at least the 1930s, but I’m sad that your views on the relative merits of Midnight Run and A Fish Called Wanda and My Neighbor Totoro and Bull Durham and Die Hard will go unheard (for now?). But you probably lean more to the arthouse….Dead Ringers or Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or Distant Voices, Still Lives or The Last Temptation of Christ or The Unbearable Lightness of Being?

    Actually, you’re probably just too busy to put it together. Just letting you know that the movie lists are always an appreciated accompaniment…..


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s